Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Bernard Shaw as Humanitarian

by Henry S. Salt

We venture to think that Mr. Bernard Shaw is at the most critical point in his career. For years he kept on telling the public, quite truly, that he was a man of genius, and for years all went smoothly for him, until a serious thing happened—the public took him at his word. His triumph in this respect has reminded us of certain stories of the thrilling craft of “moose-calling,” when the hunter, using a roll of birch-bark as a trumpet, imitates the call of the bull moose, and tries to draw him from his thicket, a process sometimes crowned by a tremendous and unexpected success. In like manner “G. B. S.,” by skilfully blowing his own trumpet, has brought to his side, at a rush, the great moose, John Bull, and is at present occupied, it would seem, with the still more difficult question—what to do with him now that he is there. So far, by writing a new play once a month, by lecturing on every subject under the sun, by being interviewed daily, and by contributing letters of portentous length to the Times and other papers, he has contrived to keep the great beast in hand; but will he be able long to maintain this tour de force?

For the present, at any rate, Mr. Shaw “holds the field,” and we now propose to dwell somewhat exclusively on his importance as humanitarian, because we notice that in the articles and books that are being published about him, this strongly marked side of his character is almost entirely overlooked. Mr. Holbrook Jackson, for instance, in the book now before us,1 briefly dismisses his “ideas of dietetic reform” and “hatred of sport and vivisection” as themes that may be traced to the great “Fabian idea,” whereas the fact is that Shaw the Fabian and Shaw the Humanitarian are almost different persons, who have often acted independently of each other, and sometimes even in opposition. We may be quite sure that in nine out of ten portraits of Mr. Shaw his humanitarianism—that is, his detestation of such barbarities as the lash, vivisection, blood-sports, and the butchery of animals for food—will be depreciated or ignored, and it is, therefore, the more necessary that the balance should here be redressed. We have sometimes thought that, in addition to the many forcible arguments on which humanitarians rely, there is one which has not even yet been sufficiently appreciated, and that is Mr. Bernard Shaw himself. There he is—a personality worth the consideration of those “practical” people who regard all humanitarians as “idealists” and “visionaries,” without shrewdness and without humour. To such critics, if worth answering at all, Mr. Bernard Shaw is the readiest and most compendious answer.

In this world of conventionality, half choked as it is with the dust and ashes of the commonplace, there is no more fruitful cause of exceeding great joy than an original mind, and the very rarity of that spectacle is the measure of our delight in “G. B. S.” It is the original that saves the soul in us, the traditional that kills; and even at our dullest we all have enough inkling of originality to enable us, if we will, to recognise and respond to it in others. Whatever we may think of “G. B. S.” in other respects, we are all agreed in this (and we have his own authority for it), that he is original, unaccountable, unique.

Naturally the appalling dullness of our age shows itself most unmistakably in its “humour”; the professional jester of the dinner-table or of the comic journal is perhaps of all men the most saddening. It is recorded that when Emerson once took his little boy to see a circus clown, the child looked up with troubled eyes and said: “Papa, the funny man makes me want to go home.” We trust a good many of us feel that sensation when we hear or read some of the gruesome banalities which are conscientiously uttered, and conscientiously accepted, in distinguished circles as “humorous.” It is here that Mr. Shaw stands out in wholesome and refreshing contrast; there is not a man living who has a richer gift of humour—innate, genuine, and spontaneous. “His fine wit,” as Shelley sang of the novelist Peacock, “makes such a wound the knife is lost in it”; and it is difficult to overestimate the value of such a weapon in the cause of social reform.

For the point we wish particularly to make is this—that in Mr. Shaw’s case humour and humanity go hand in hand; a most keen and implacable satirist of social hypocrisies, he is at the same time a most consistent and outspoken enemy of cruelty in every form. Will the shrewd critics who see in humanitarianism nothing but a sentimental illusion kindly explain? Here is the most hard-headed man of his time, the last to be gulled by an appeal to “sentiment,” and, strange to relate, he is, among other things, an anti-flogger, an anti-vivisectionist, and a vegetarian. Confronted with this problem, the only explanation ever vouchsafed by our “practical” censors is that Mr. Shaw’s opinions are “not to be taken seriously.” So incredible does it seem to some worthy people, accustomed as they are to an atmosphere of profound dullness, that it is possible to be serious without being dull. Yet surely a truth is not the less a truth because it is conveyed to us in a humorous or even a paradoxical form!

Herein, however, originates the very common misapprehension of Mr. Shaw’s utterances, that he happens not to speak the same language as his fellow-citizens. Let a man talk or write in French, German, Russian, Norwegian, or even Chinese, and he may be interpreted or translated; but for him who speaks in paradoxes neither translator nor interpreter is available. He will perforce be misunderstood and misrepresented by the majority of his audience, who, being themselves devoid of the humour by which he is inspired, may diligently read, mark, learn—but digest him never. For this reason a “Shawism” is too often a cause of trouble and perplexity to well-meaning readers among whom it has dropped like a bomb—a thing to be placed, so to speak, in a mental bucket, pending the due arrival of policeman and analyst. And the worst of it is that Mr. Shaw, even when most grievously misconstrued, will never condescend to explain himself. “Jesting Pilate” was nothing to him; for he at least made a show of asking about the truth, though he did not wait for the answer, whereas Mr. Shaw, who knows the truth, will not wait to tell it. What wonder, then, if a bewildered public jumps to the conclusion that he is “cynical”?

Yet this charge of cynicism—how comical it is, when one considers by whom it is usually made, and against whom! The society journalist and man-about-town, to whom self-gratification and “getting-on” are the chief aims of existence, is troubled, in the large humanity of his spirit, at the “cynicism” of Mr. Shaw, who for the last twenty-five years has probably done as much disinterested and devoted work, by voice and pen, as any dweller in London. And, as a matter of fact, there is nothing cynical about Mr. Shaw’s writings. To be paradoxical, sarcastic, scathing even, is not necessarily to be cynical. A man may laugh as sharply as he will at the illusions of his fellows, and yet believe sincerely in their ultimate progress; indeed, his satire may be designed to hasten this very movement—“to goad them,” as Thoreau said, “like oxen into a trot.” The cynic, on the other hand, is one who disbelieves in all possibility of progress; to him life itself, and not merely the obsessions and impediments of life, is a subject for mockery and derision.

It is much to be regretted that even among social reformers a “Shawism” should often prove to be a stumbling-block, and that they should take refuge in the utterly mistaken notion that its author is merely “poking fun” at them. As well might the sick man accuse the doctor of levity because he gilds the pill. In reality Mr. Shaw is one of the most serious and painstaking of thinkers; his frivolity is all in the manner, his seriousness in the intent, whereas, unhappily, with most people it is the intent that is so deadly frivolous, and the manner that is so deadly dull.

The “egotism,” again, that is a trial to some of his readers, who think it a breach of the proprieties that he should write so much “about himself”—what is it? There are at least two kinds of egotism, the tolerable and the intolerable variety. The objection, we take it, which one feels to the egotist in general, is not that he should attempt to show us his own personality, but that he should have no personality to show; just as we are indignant with the exhibitor of the “live mermaid” at a fair, not because we should not like to see a mermaid, but because we have so many times been put off with some lifeless and fishy substitute. Where there is a genuine ego, we shall not quarrel with the egotist. The men who can talk naturally and frankly about themselves, and have real selves to talk about, are rare enough, but Mr. Shaw is one of them; and those who can read between the lines of his autobiographical confidences will probably have discovered that, so far from being what is vulgarly meant by an “egotist,” he in truth veils a rather delicate sensibility under a thin garb of assurance.

We have left ourselves no space to speak of “G. B. S.” as author, but that is of the less consequence, because, in the first place, every one is talking of him in that capacity, and secondly, unlike so many distinguished men of letters, he is not the book-man only, but emphatically “the man behind the book”; his life is the best practical embodiment of his theories. And here, again, it should be observed, the idea that he is lacking in “seriousness” is ludicrously wide of the mark, for no more conscientious writer ever handled pen. Whether we study his early novels, “Cashel Byron” and “The Unsocial Socialist,” works which have never quite hit the taste of the public, though their day may be yet to come; or his later dramas, which loom so largely in the public mind to-day; or the mass of his miscellaneous criticism—musical, dramatic, literary, political, and what not—we find not only the same brilliant fancy throughout, but an unusually high level of what even a brilliant fancy cannot afford to dispense with—hard, unsparing workmanship. If the literary gentlemen who affect to regard Mr. Shaw as the spoilt child of their profession could put into their own productions some of the “grit” and backbone that characterise all he writes, we venture to think it would be better for themselves, and none the worse for their readers.

To return to the point from which we started—that aspect of Mr. Shaw’s character which, though only one of many aspects, is the one that most closely concerns us here—his humanitarianism. No propagandist cause can afford to omit any legitimate method of advocating itself, and a personal argument (even where the torture of our fellow-creatures is concerned) is often of greater weight than an appeal to principle. Let us, therefore, make the most of Bernard Shaw as humanitarian, for we are justly proud of him. He is our proof-positive that what are called heart and brain, feeling and intellect, humour and humanity, are not merely compatible, but are then only at their best and brightest when united and working harmoniously in the same person.

1 “Bernard Shaw,” Holbrook Jackson. E. Grant Richards, 1907.

Published: Humane Review, April 1908